John Zorn: The Paul of Klezmer Music?

by Carl Packman

The mission of St. Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” according to the Romans 15:16, was to carry out ‘a priestly ministry’ at the service of God in order that ‘the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable.’ Theologians, and of late philosophers promoting political universalism such as Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou, note Paul to be the figurehead of the break from Jewish racial particularism resonating in his words ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ (Galatians 3:28) ‘For you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26). It was universal faith in the resurrection of Jesus which was most important, as instructed by Paul, and that the worship of the God of Israel could be undergone by Jew and non-Jew alike.

Save for the hyperbole of such a comparison, might it be argued that John Zorn is to Klezmer music what Paul was to the God of Israel? Is it not the case that, when around 15 years ago in 1993 he started to explore musically his Jewish roots, Zorn became the closest we have to promoting a gentile appreciation of Klezmer music despite his likely protests at such a statement? As any student of Roland Barthes will repeat, the author is dead and any appeals by the author himself to justify his reasons for undertaking his work must necessarily compete amongst a multitude of different readings of it. My reading of Zorn’s music is that since it hasn’t always had a Jewish character to it – one would be hard pushed to find a legitimate Jewish root in the punk-jazz noise eruption of Naked City for example—his music has appealed to a cross-section of audiences. Thus, the appeal he has on his audience might extend to the influence he has had on Klezmer music, in fact I should think it definitely would.

Klezmer music has a very long and fruitful history. The word was coined in the 1970’s from the Hebrew כלי זמר or “kley-zemer” to denote the instrument used to create music, referred otherwise as ‘vessel of song’ or ‘tool of medley’. The instrumental music that Klezmer now designates can be traced back all the way to the Common Era. The destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem resulted in the Jews’ exile into Babylon. Middle Eastern communities started to develop and those who returned to Jerusalem rebuilt the temple. The Romans destroyed this temple in 70CE which subsequently led to the Jewish Diaspora. One of the traditions to mark this depressing event was to prohibit instrumental music until the coming of the Messiah when the temple would be rebuilt once again. But when secular music began drawing influence from Greek culture, the European Jewish communities were enabled to develop their religion and culture and explore what had been left repressed during the previous events.

During the first millennium Jewish communities had developed all across Europe and North Africa, notably at the times of the Christian Reconquestia of Spain and the Inquisition forcing Jews to convert or practice in private. Jews were expelled from England in the 12th century around the same time as the Ashkenazi Jews moved east to Poland retaining their name, language, practices and customs.

In the Middle Ages music played by Jews was able to find expression in Germany in the 12th century and Italy in the 16th century for example as attitudes changed and cities became more cosmopolitan. These musical expressions continued in small pockets all the way up into the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s with acts such as Frank London’s The Klezmatics Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warshauer’s duo and Kurt Bjorling’s Brave Old World, and even to the present day with so-called neo-Klezmer acts such as Oy Division in Tel Aviv and Metropolitan Klezmer in New York.

Indeed John Zorn’s Masada outfit should be included into the fold. Named after the site of Mountain tops inhabited by families of Jewish rebels as a base to raid Roman settlements during the 66CE Jewish-Roman War, Masada formed in order to record the hundreds of brief compositions that were written by Zorn from 1993 and for the next five years that became known simply as the ‘Masada songbook’. Furthermore, in 1995 he teamed up with Jazz producer Kazunori Sugiyama to establish the experimental record label Tzadik.

His latest project has been a collaboration with the pioneering choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro at the Guggenheim Museum. The surprise pairing are said, by Steve Smith of the New York Times, to have common ground in the Song of Songs, the Old Testament book viewed by some as being an allegory for God and Israel as husband and wife. For Shapiro, the Khmer translation of the Song of Songs inspired her conceive the choreography for the project, while for Zorn it was a further exploration of Jewish identity.

Zorn, in a written piece summarising his take on “Radical Jewish Culture”, reminds us that ethnocentricity is not at the essence of the Tzadik record label. He continues: “I do not and have never espoused the idea that any music a Jew makes is Jewish music”, which provides the context with which to identify Zorn as the Paul of Klezmer. The scale and diversity of Zorn’s fanbase, drawn from his non-Jewish related music, has meant that his exploration of Jewish themes and Klezmer in particular have been made available to a wider public. The subsequent popularity of the Masadas is the first gentile appreciation of Klezmer music of its kind, and we have John Zorn himself to thank for this.

by Carl Packman, 28 Nov 2008

to top of page To top of page

the KlezmerShack   Ari's home page 

to About the Jewish-music mailing list
to The Klezmer Shack main page
to Ari Davidow's home page

Thank you for visiting:
Copyright © 2008 Carl Packman. All rights reserved.
This page is maintained by Ari Davidow. E-mail Ari Davidow with any comments or suggestions. Last revised18 January, 2009 .